Thursday, 21 June 2012
Topical Issue Debate
Child Care Services
Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for selecting this issue, following the publication of the report of the child death review panel yesterday. The report made for harrowing reading, showing that 196 children in the care of the State or known to the State and the HSE since 2000 died, 112 of whom died from unnatural causes. At the outset I commend the work of the report's authors, Geoffrey Shannon and Norah Gibbons, for the immense amount of time and effort they put into completing such a thorough report. They got to the nub of each story about these children, many of whom met a very unfortunate and untimely end. I would also like to acknowledge my former colleague and Minister of State, Barry Andrews, for initiating the report, as well as the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs for publishing the report yesterday without redaction.
There are very important lessons we must learn from this report. We must reform our child protection system so every possible step is taken by the State to ensure that those vulnerable children receive the services they require. Reform is required to deliver that, but the resources must also be delivered so that the capacity exists in our child protection system to meet the needs as they arise. To that end, I ask that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs look at reinstating the exemption to the public service recruitment embargo that had applied to social workers in the area of child and family services. Over the course of the last year, we have gone from a system whereby all those positions were being backfilled to a system where it is being left to the discretion of the HSE. In that time, we have gone from a situation where 93.9% of children in the care of the State had an assigned social worker to a situation in March 2012 where that dropped to under 92%.
The Government must move to introduce mandatory aftercare. In the report, we read that 27 of the 32 children in aftercare died by unnatural causes. That shows the danger and difficulty that many of those children experience once they leave the care of the State. It also shows how the State is failing those children by not ensuring that the aftercare is provided to them.
There is a recommendation in the report to remove the in camera restrictions, whereby reporting cases involving child protection is not allowed. We must ensure the recommendation is fully implemented. It is only by shining a light on our child protection system that we can ensure the type of cases highlighted in this report do not happen again.
I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. I am taking this debate on behalf of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. Unfortunately, she cannot be here this afternoon but she did attend the committee this morning.
Yesterday saw the publication by the Minister of the report of the independent child death review group. The report, prepared by Dr. Geoffrey Shannon and Norah Gibbons, gives details of the 196 children who died between 2000 and 2010, both of natural and unnatural causes. The children in the report include children who were in the care of the State at the time of their death, young adults who were in aftercare and other children who were not in care but were known to the HSE. The report contains details of the 112 children who died of unnatural causes. Of these children, 17 were in care, 27 were in receipt of aftercare and 68 were not in care but were in some way known to the HSE child and family services.
In the first instance I would like to extend my deepest sympathies to the families of all the children and young adults who are the subject of this report. The report highlights system failings in the Irish child protection services, including poor risk assessment, poor co-ordination between services, poor flows of information, limited access to specialist assessment and therapeutic services, as well as limited inter-agency work for children and families with complex needs. The report further highlights a lack of early intervention and family support services responding proportionately to the needs of children at risk and families in crisis. I have no doubt that if the system had done a better job, outcomes for some of these children might well have been very different.
It should be noted, however, that the report also comments on evidence of good practice, the wide range of services made available and the efforts made to intervene and build relationships to address the underlying vulnerabilities of the children by the HSE. There are sufficient examples of excellent, compassionate practice for us to determine realistically that what is required is a system which supports and expects such good practice as standard.
The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has welcomed the findings and recommendations of this report and accepts fully the need for action in the areas identified. At this morning's joint committee meeting, the Minister confirmed that she will be putting in place an implementation programme with regular reports to the Government. However, before publication of the report, action was already underway in a number of areas identified in it. The Minister will be making an announcement in September on the further development of an independent child death review structure, following consultation with some of the key bodies and experts involved. Next month will see the publication of the new HIQA national standards for the protection and welfare of children which will set out a new standards-based approach to the delivery of an effective and accountable child protection service. Later this year, the Government will bring forward a proposed constitutional amendment to strengthen child protection further and give constitutional recognition to the best interests of the child.
A key element of the ongoing reform programme is the removal of child welfare and protection services from the HSE and the establishment of a new child and family support agency. The task force, established by the Minister to advise on the new agency, will present its final report by the end of this month and the agency, led by CEO designate Gordon Jeyes, will be established and up and running in January 2013. The Minister will work with the new agency and the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, on the provision of a seamless interface between child protection services and child and adolescent mental health services. The Minister is also working with the Minister of State, Deputy Róisín Shortall, and the HSE on developing a fresh approach to identifying and addressing the hidden harm posed by substance misuse. This is an area highlighted in a number of cases contained in the report.
The provision of nationwide 24-hour social work assistance is being worked on in the context of the establishment of the new agency.
The Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, is consulting the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Courts Service on the preparation of new regulations regarding the in camera rule - to which the Deputy referred - to allow access to child welfare and protection hearings. Yesterday, the Minister also announced the preparation of legislation to provide clarity around the issue of after-care provision to build on an improving picture of service provision in this area in recent years.
The report of the independent review group makes for stark and uncomfortable reading. I hope it is clear that this Government is committed to transparency and honesty regarding the challenges in getting children's services right. Child protection remains a high priority on our agenda and changes at every level, including those relating to policy, law, structures and individual practitioners, will continue to be made and these will make a difference for the future.
I thank the Minister of State for her reply. The challenge of reforming our child protection system and making it fit for purpose does not begin or end with the publication of the report. The challenge to ensure proper and appropriate services are delivered to vulnerable children must continue to be met daily. The report published yesterday relates to the period 2000 to March 2010. Since the latter date and May of this year, some 46 further children who were in the care of the State or who were known to the HSE have died. That number reflects those contained in the report. This illustrates the ongoing need for the HSE to ensure those children who are most vulnerable obtain the resources they require.
I welcome the Tánaiste's announcement this morning that a referendum on children's rights will be held before the end of the year. This referendum will ensure the voice of children will be key and that children themselves will be central to everything we do. I also welcome the proposals for reform. It is vital the establishment of an agency separate from the HSE leads to real and meaningful reform and to the integration of services in the area of child welfare. It is also important the Government should put the necessary resources into the system. This issue was highlighted by both authors of the report published yesterday who stated the system does not have the required resources and is overstretched. I accept reform is required but there is also a need to provide resources.
I ask the Department and the Government to reinstate the full exemption relating to the recruitment embargo that was in place. In addition, they should consider increasing the numbers of social workers and those employed in the area of mental health services in order that we might ensure services are delivered to children as they need them. In recent months, the number of children in care with assigned social workers has been in decline. We must put a stop to this and ensure that, as a basic right, every child in the care of the State has a social worker assigned to him or her. Those social workers will be able to look after those children's cases and ensure they obtain access to co-ordinated services and receive protection from the State.
It is important to acknowledge this matter is non-partisan in terms of party politics. I acknowledge the support of Deputy McConalogue and others in respect of it. Our focus must be on children and their needs. I agree with the Deputy that a consistent focus is required in order that we might continue to address the various areas highlighted in the report. The Government's commitment in respect of the referendum on children's rights has been clearly outlined. The referendum will certainly be an important element in all of this. There is a great deal of work to be done in respect of these very young and vulnerable children.
I will convey to the Minister the points the Deputy has made. I am sure the Houses of the Oireachtas will maintain a very strong focus on this matter in the coming years to ensure we make better provision for these vulnerable children in the future.